It was 70 years ago, in 1951, when the legendary reformer Mayor Richardson Dilworth led the charge to write our city’s constitution, the Home Rule Charter, as a rebuttal to what had been a corrupt Republican machine in Philadelphia.
He was, in essence, taking government back for the people, leading us into a new era of openness and fair play—and the document he forged reflected those values.
Seven decades later, the Charter has become a bloated, out-of-date document of a bygone era, one that no longer resembles the city we are, or want to be.
That’s why, this time last year, we launched The Citizen’s Charter Commission, an initial foray into rewriting the 200-plus page document so it can be a tool for creating a more robust, equitable and easy-to-navigate city. The aim was to lay the groundwork for a wholesale rethinking of the city’s charter, inspired in part by the New York City Charter Commission that in 2019 put on the ballot, and had approved by voters, several important changes to that city’s governing document.
To get us started, along with Drexel University’s Politics Department head Richardson Dilworth—grandson of the former mayor—we partnered on a class made up of 20 students and Citizen readers for a deep dive into what makes an urban citizen, and how our city’s governing document should speak for and to them.
Dilworth brought the history and the context; we brought in speakers—from former Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz, to election reformers Ali Pearlman and David Thornburgh; former police reform commission interim head Erica Atwood, and two of the people involved in the last attempt to reform the commission, in the mid-’90s: Barbara Adams and Bret Mandel.
We asked the students to consider how the Charter should be adapted to our age:
Should we scrap the whole thing and start over? (No, from most, who took to heart Atwood’s caution that doing so would erase our history and risk our making the same mistakes again.)
What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed?
How do we reflect who we are today in a document that also must speak to future generations?
What they came up with were recommendations that ranged from simple to radical to oddball, but that all spoke to the most important question our Home Rule Charter should answer: What are the values and principles we hold dear as citizens of the city of Philadelphia?
“A city charter must resemble and elevate, first and foremost, the opinions and dignity of those living inside its borders. It is the duty of the city government to resemble the diverse array of opinions and people that reside within its borders,” wrote Sam Arciprete in his final paper. “A city must foster cooperation from its citizens, which is a two-way street. The city must be equally concerned with the success of its inhabitants as it expects its citizens to be in its own success.”
Changes to City Council
Impose term limits for City Councilmembers
Several students recommended this change to the charter, noting that Philly is one of only two major cities that don’t limit how long members can serve—even while capping mayors to two four year terms. “Establishing term limits prevents City Councilmembers from becoming complacent after excessively long terms,” wrote Sarah Lily Resanovich. They would “allow for council members to be more focused on the needs of their constituents and less focused on the next election cycle.”
Political likelihood: As with any charter change, this requires City Councilmembers to vote to put it on the ballot, which complicates things. But in fact, Councilmembers Allan Domb and Darrell Clarke both introduced bills last year that would cap legislators’ terms to either 20 (five terms) or 16 years (four terms). The bill is still alive, but has not yet come up for a vote.
Stagger City Council terms
Resanovich recommends Philly elect half of City Council every two years, which she argues would have several effects: allowing for more continuity between elections as only half of councilmembers would be up for reelection at at only time; allow for more competitive elections, since it opens up more opportunities for people to run; and increasing citizen engagement.
“Local citizenship is becoming not only increasingly important but also increasingly talked about,” she says. Staggering council terms “could create a more engaged public because there are more opportunities to voice their opinions through the ballot box.”
Political likelihood: Municipalities that have considered staggered elections often do so to prevent a wholesale overturning of council at one time, which can be disruptive to the function of government and passing of legislation. That’s not currently a huge risk in Philly, where more often than not members are reelected with little contest. (Although in the last election, in 2019, two councilmembers were voted out.) And this idea has another drawback, as well: A staggered term means half of council would be distracted by their election every two years.
Mandate that the Council president is an at-large member
There’s no question that in Philadelphia’s form of government, the City Council president has an extraordinary amount of power to determine legislation, policy and the direction of the city.
Currently, any member of Council can be chosen by their colleagues to lead the body, and 5th District Councilmember Darrell Clarke has held the post since 2012. That means a remarkably small number of Philadelphians—those Clarke is most beholden to, his voters—are shaping the city.
“By mandating that the Philadelphia City Council president is elected at large, the charter would be ensuring that the government is more accountable to all Philadelphia citizens,” Resanovich wrote. “This could lead to a more engaged public and more equal representation for all Philadelphia neighborhoods.”
Political likelihood: This has long been a reform pushed by former mayor John Street—Clarke’s is perhaps the easiest change to City Council among all the recommendations, with one big caveat: Given Clarke’s ability to influence what bills come up for a vote, he would have to be okay with, essentially, legislating himself out of a job. That seems like a hard sell.
End councilmanic prerogative as it currently exists
This perennial issue in Philly had no one solution from the students. Both Arciprete and Ryan Kelleher suggested upping the number of councilmembers to 21, 10 representing districts and 11 at-large, representing the whole city. That would give a majority voice to members who speak for the city as a whole, rather than those who have an interest in only a small community.
Political likelihood: As with the other Council reforms, this would be a hard sell for a body that at 17 members, is already pretty large—and it would cost taxpayers more money in staff and salaries, which might be a tough idea to pass in the ballot box. Dilworth notes that an alternative and possibly more effective solution might be to separate out the at-large members into a separate upper chamber.
“Philadelphia like many cities had a bicameral City Council, with about 145 members total, until the 1919 charter; and New York City had an upper chamber in the form of the Board of Estimate until more recently,” he says. “If the at-large members were a separate chamber, they would be a more effective check against district-specific interests, and vice versa.”
Several other students called for making the city’s Land Bank a wholly independent department within the city, not beholden to or dependent on City Council, to buy and sell vacant land in Philly.
Political likelihood: This is not a radical idea; it’s how other cities operate their Land Banks, and how ours was originally conceived—until councilmembers essentially stripped the body of its power.
Grant Philadelphia’s more than 120,000 non-naturalized immigrants the right to vote
According to both Arciprete and Alaina Foulkes, allowing non-citizen residents to vote would open up the electoral process to thousands of Philadelphians who pay taxes, send their children to public schools, rent and buy homes and interact regularly with city government.
“As ‘denizens’ of political communities, they, too, have to live with the effects of the policies implemented by the legislative bodies, the members of which they are currently barred from voting for,” Foulkes noted.
Political likelihood: Surprisingly, this actually might be doable. While a 1996 law prohibits non-citizens from voting in federal elections, local governments have the power to open up the electoral process to immigrants.
According to Ballotpedia, San Francisco and nine municipalities in Maryland allow non-citizens to vote in local races. It’s unclear the way Pennsylvania law is written whether Philly could allow non-citizen immigrants to vote, but it also doesn’t explicitly say it can’t.
Institute ranked-choice voting for local elections
Ranked-choice voting, as Resanovich recommended, is already the law in a few states and several cities. It allows voters to rank their choices on the ballot rather than just vote for one person. If no candidate receives more than a majority of the vote, election officials take into account voters’ second choices—and then third, and so on—until one candidate gets the required percentage to be declared a winner.
For a sense of how powerful this can be, ranked choice voting in the 2016 primary would have resulted in someone other than Donald Trump becoming the Republican candidate for president that year. “By mandating ranked-choice voting Philadelphia would allow for more competitive elections,” Resanovich wrote. “Ranked-choice voting would have a stronger effect in the primaries allowing for party voters to have more of a say in the way that their party will act moving forward.”
Political likelihood: Among the changes voters approved in New York City in 2019 was ranked-choice voting for some local elections, something advocates hope will lead to more engaged voters, better information about voters’ preferences, and, of course, better election outcomes. Unfortunately, changes to how Philly votes require state intervention—and that’s not likely to happen in the Republican legislature any time soon.
Elect everyone who makes any decisions
That includes, as proposed by Benjamin Winkler, the school board, zoning board, police advisory commission. “I firmly believe that the way to drive citizen engagement is to put our best citizens in charge of the substantive work of governance,” Winkler wrote. “What I am proposing is that we have a fresh set of eyes on our great problems, of schools, police, zoning, etc. Let these people be unencumbered by years of failed reforms, and let them ask, ‘Why do we do it this way?’”
Formalize a charter commission
In the spirit of The Citizen’s project, a couple students proposed ways to engage residents in continuously shaping the Home Rule Charter, through regular charter commissions every 10 or 25 years.
Ryan Kelleher, after a suggestion by Atwood, suggested the City hold caucus meetings throughout Philly to consider charter changes.
Danielle Wolfson also recommended streamlining the charter to eliminate rules and policies that no longer are relevant.
Dilworth has echoed another of Wolfson’s suggestions: using plain language so more Philadelphians would be inclined and able to read the document.
“A fundamental charter reform should be rewriting the thing so that its language is accessible–and perhaps even inspirational, like the U.S. Constitution,” he says. “The charter should be made accessible by shortening its length to include only constitutional issues—that is, it should be the rule book that decides how the city makes rules, and really nothing else.”
Fight against corruption
A few students—even before the uprisings of 2020—recommended giving the Police Advisory Commission, which is the civilian oversight body, disciplinary authority and more transparency.
Similarly, Arcipete suggested an ethics review panel, made up of members of the Mayor’s Office and citizen volunteers, to review complaints about government workers with the ability to discipline those found to have engaged in unethical behavior.
These are just a few of the many ideas that emerged from the class—and that, no doubt, are lurking out there in Philadelphians’ brains. And we are not done. This year, post-pandemic, we hope to get our charter commission back together, along with other interested changemakers, to more formally launch an effort to remake Philly’s governing document.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the words of Professor Dilworth himself, who, a few days before Donald Trump‘s inauguration in 2017, argued in The Citizen that what Philly needs, more than a whole reboot of the Charter, is a consideration of what the Charter means—a context for the values and principles we hold dear as a people:
Similar to the U.S. Constitution, the Home Rule Charter of Philadelphia is a rule book that reflects the ideals of our city. Yet unlike the Constitution, there is very little of a narrative surrounding our Charter which explains its ideals. There are no well-known ancillary documents that explain the ideals of our city, and there is at best an anemic apparatus for educating Philadelphians—especially young Philadelphians—about the unique and specific ideals reflected in our system of local governance.
When our Charter is discussed—typically only among lawyers, city officials, or other nerdy types—it is discussed in terms of technical reforms that would in all likelihood have either minimal or unintended consequences (term-limiting legislators, for instance, often has the unintended consequence of empowering lobbyists). What might be actually more impactful than technical reform would be the construction of a narrative around the Charter that explains the unique ideals it reflects, and which could be used as a tool for socializing city residents into a greater recognition of what it means to be a citizen of Philadelphia.
The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.